| by G Parthasarathy
Wars and conflicts are almost inevitably bloody and marked by huge civilian casualties which the Americans describe as “collateral damage”.
( March 29, 2012, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed after the American invasion of Iraq, avowedly in order to rid the country of nuclear weapons which never existed, vary from 66,081 (according to WikiLeaks cables) and 601,000 (according to an international study). In Afghanistan, the number of civilian deaths caused by US military actions is estimated to be between 9,415 and 29,007.
All this is apart from documented instances of torture of Iraqis and Afghans in the custody of British and American forces. The estimates of Libyan civilians killed in the Anglo-French bombing of their country have not yet been published. During Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed. These included 27,639 LTTE cadre, 23,327 Sri Lankan soldiers and 1,155 Indian soldiers.
As the civil war drew to an end and the LTTE leaders, including V Prabhakaran, were cornered into a continually shrinking perimeter, they surrounded themselves with civilians to act as a human shield to enable them to stage a getaway, as they had done when they were surrounded by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Jaffna and Vavuniya between 1987 and 1989. While himself a skilful military tactician, Prabhakaran had a track record of sacrificing others when seeking his own escape.
According to UN estimates, around 6,500 civilians lost their lives and 14,500 were injured in this bloody last phase of the conflict. There is no doubt that there would have been instances of targeted killings of civilians by the Sri Lankan Army as they closed in on Prabhakaran. But can the LTTE leaders escape blame for sticking to their time-bound practice of using a human shield when surrounded?
Given America’s own experiences of ‘collateral damage’ during wars it has waged, one was rather surprised that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to suddenly turn her focus on alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka when American involvement on this issue had been low-key in the past. The US, in fact, materially and militarily assisted the Sri Lankan Government during the civil war.
Some of my American friends tell me that while the professionals in the US State Department did not particularly relish an effort to target a small Island democracy, the EU the British Government persuaded the Secretary of State to move against Sri Lanka. Sadly, in today’s world inconsequential European busybodies like Norway seek to assume airs of moral superiority by sermonising others, forgetting that the Western world itself has much to answer for in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
Even an ordinary Indian with a moderate understanding of international affairs recognises the realities of Western double standards in the name of human rights. And successive Governments in India have recognised that they should not make common cause with the West when such double standards are practised on issues of ‘human rights’ and so-called ‘war crimes’.
It is now obvious that the UPA Government got itself into a position of acting against the country’s national interests because of its fears of the DMK withdrawing support if the Congress did not fall in line with the demands of its alliance partner. Many would agree that this fear was misplaced as the DMK is shrewd enough to recognise that without influence in New Delhi, it would land in deeper trouble in Tamil Nadu.
Moreover, no attempt was made to reach out to public opinion across the country, particularly in Tamil Nadu, to explain that it would be counter-productive to offend the Government in Colombo which, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh affirmed recently, had been more than helpful in channelling substantial assistance from India for the rehabilitation of Tamil civilians displaced by the civil war.
India’s claims that it had helped in “introducing a measure of balance in the language of the resolution” of the UN Human Rights Council adopted in Geneva will cut no ice in Colombo, or indeed across our entire neighbourhood. Just for the record, no other country in our neighbourhood supported the resolution targeting a small, democratic and friendly neighbour of ours. To our east, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and the Philippines voted against the US-drafted resolution while Malaysia abstained. To our west Maldives, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, voted in support of Sri Lanka.
Snide comments are now being made that Sri Lanka had to be sacrificed to for us to propitiate the Americans, who are displeased with our policies on the nuclear liability bill, defence purchases and on issues before the UN Security Council.
Sadly, the Opposition BJP discarded the wisdom shown in the Vajpayee years on relations with our neighbours and joined the populist chorus to target a friendly neighbouring country. Sri Lanka has to be persuaded to fulfil commitments it has made for devolution of powers to the Tamils and the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on its Army’s wartime excesses by imaginative diplomacy and not by rhetoric and discriminatory targeting.